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DBS’ digital-aha moment: “We are going to die if we don’t digitise”

When it came to embracing digital, it was “do or die” for DBS. The bank which now labels itself as the Digital Bank of Singapore says the “aha moment” came at a board meeting in 2013, after a deal with an Indonesian bank fell through.

It was also a time when fintech was emerging and many “companies were behaving like banks with lending of money, moving of money and funding”, said Pearlyn Phau, MD and deputy group head, Consumer Banking and Wealth Management, DBS Group, who was speaking at the recent Adobe Experience Forum Singapore.

These companies had an added advantage of being able to scale up rapidly without having the baggage of a large physical presence.

“In the past, foreign banks were our competitors, and then the local banks became our competitors, but today our competitors are the platform companies. They are not even banks anymore,” she said. Given the disruptions happening across the industries, companies really need to look beyond their traditional competitors, she added.

Because of this, the DBS board took a step back and recalibrated its strategy.

“That’s when the board said we are going to die if we don’t digitise,” she said. And then came the process of DBS transforming and rewiring the entire group in that direction. When the bank embarked on this digital transformation journey, it did it in “totality” across the front, middle and back end functions, explained Phau.

“We had to make a call as to whether to do it as a whole organisation or part by part. We knew there will always be a lot of naysayers, but we decided to transform from the core,” Phau said.

It was really about transforming the hard ware and also the ‘heart ware’ – which is the cultural change.

This was the singular largest challenge for the large company.

“It is more than pdf-ing hard copy forms. It is really about changing the way you work, and one of the early lessons for us was that we had to learn by doing,” she said.

Cultural and mindset change

It was not enough to simply place people in courses and trainings and demand for them to “go digital”. The company also quickly realised creating new ways of thinking meant bringing in a diverse range of people, with different ideas, to actually work together. As such, it is now hiring people outside of the traditional banking and finance industries.

“We needed to inject stimulants to catalyse the whole process. So we hired a whole bunch of people. We hired anthropologists who really understand customer behaviour,” Phau added. The bank now also hires people from liberal arts, engineering and a range of fields as it wants to take a deliberate action to create a mix of people with new ways of thinking.

“We wanted to become a 22,000 people startup. That is already our battle cry, so that is something that we’ve done in the last few years,” she said. She added that sometimes, on-boarding new technology also requires a leap of faith.

“It helps that the senior management is very tech geared,” Phau said. But of course, at the end of the day, the company still needs to keep its lights.

We need to acquire the skill of flying the plane and tweaking the engine at the same time.

The role of marketing

Phau explains that the role of marketing has also shifted today. In the past, she defines the role of marketing as “gift wrapping”.

“We decide what the product was and threw it to the marketing team, and asked them to market it,” she said. But today, it really is about defining the customer value proposition as customers become far more discerning. As such, the marketing department today also works on the customer value proposition and has a core role in the business function. The marketing team also works alongside with the product teams.

The marketing team has hard KPIs related to acquisition and on-boarding. Not just how many people clicked on the ad.

“For us, everybody is a marketer and everybody is a salesman. Piyush Gupta, our CEO, is the biggest marketer for the brand and that has to transcend across the organisation – especially in the consumer segment,” she said.

Meanwhile, when it comes to product creation, it is no longer feasible for companies to perfect their product and then go to market. Tweaks and revisions made along the way. But the advantage of this is that the cost of failure is reduced.

“In the past the cost of failure was very high because the product had to be perfect before a brand could go to market with it,” she said.  As such, the expectations attached were much higher. Today, brands need to be able to test and learn and “fail fast”.

“I think we need to remember not to seek perfection before launch. So many times we wait until the product is perfect, before we go to market, but we can’t afford to do that anymore,” she said.

Where do partners fit in in DBS’ marketing ecosystem

Phau added that as the brand transforms today, its partners too are transforming. For ad agencies, Phau said in the past there would be agencies good in certain aspects be it ATL or digital or event. But today they are all soon becoming full service.

“It is not so much of us expecting agencies to transform, but rather, they are also feeling the pressure to transform,” she said.

“We would give the brief. The agency will come up with something and we would go back and forth,” she said. But today, this is no longer possible given the speed needed to go-to market. Given the speed, she added in-house talent is needed who can understand the organisation and its business objective. As such, DBS is bolstering its in house marketing team with talent that understands the business KPIs.

She added that one reason Adobe has been a partner for the bank for several years now is because of the added value the service provider offers.

“A multi-market implementation is not the easiest given the various levels of sophistication and readiness in the markets. The team and infrastructure is not consistent,” she added. Adobe with its in house team has been able to help in dismantling that hurdle for DBS.

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